John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for September, 2012

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Kwasi Kwarteng: ‘We have created a culture in which people can, as a lifestyle, opt not to work’ – video

Monday, September 17th, 2012

Tory MP Kwasi Kwarteng argues that British people must work harder and longer to compete with China and India

John Harris
John Domokos

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The housing benefits cap means a wretched life for thousands in B&Bs | John Harris

Monday, September 17th, 2012

Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reform will leave families already on the lowest housing rung with nowhere to go

Not for the first time, Iain Duncan Smith is in trouble. The arrival next year of universal credit, whereby most current benefits will be folded into one unified regime, is causing no end of worry, focused on just about all its elements – from its insistence on internet access to the introduction of a single payment per household (which will effectively transfer benefits from women to men, roll back one of the modern welfare state’s inbuilt principles, and threaten a rise in domestic violence). He survived the reshuffle, but he may yet go under in the midst of a project that has so far raised concerns among no less than 70 organisations.

Even before his revolution has decisively arrived, news stories highlight the increasingly nightmarish predicament of thousands of ordinary people: think, for example, of the huge growth in food banks, or the creation of a Save the Children programme to help British families. But no matter: whenever Tories want to indicate that they pay no heed to the bleeding hearts of any Lib Dems, they continue to yelp about the need for more “welfare cuts”. (Do not forget: George Osborne has floated another £10bn off the benefits budget, opposed by both the Tories’ coalition partners and even IDS himself.) To be blunt, this is a war on the poor largely waged by the very rich, and shame on the Labour party and the wider Labour movement for not making nearly enough noise about it.

One statistic makes all coalition claims of a meaningful social conscience look risible. Figures published by the National Housing Federation show that, between 2011 and 2012, the number of homeless families forced to live in temporary bed and breakfast accommodation increased by 44%. Between January and March last year there were 2,750 families making do with life at its most threadbare and impossible; over the same period this year, the number rose to 3,960.

Homelessness as a whole has risen by 26% over the last three years. Around 50,000 households – which includes families, couples and individuals – are classed as living in temporary accommodation. A blighted minority are in B&B; the majority have houses or flats leased by councils or housing associations, usually from private landlords – who can capitalise on the intersection of market forces and dire need to charge high prices. In most cases, housing benefit caps do not apply here – but the current rules are due to expire, and housing charities expect the worst. In any case, spokespeople at the Department for Work and Pensions say that temporary accommodation is all but certain to fall under the across-the-board benefits cap in April 2013 that will precede universal credit, which is likely to swell the numbers in B&Bs yet further.

B&B accommodation is the very lowest tier of the social housing hierarchy – beyond it lies life on the streets. The last government introduced a regime that restricted councils’ use of this practice, and was creditably successful. But against the backdrop of our housing shortage, unemployment and the other effects of austerity have done their work, with problems higher up the housing hierarchy – repossessions, rent defaults – pushing people into homelessness.

There is a new problem too: the caps on housing benefit that hit new applicants in April 2011, and have applied to existing claimants since January. As has been well documented, all this is disproportionately a London problem, evidenced by the people at its wretched heart: those identified in officialspeak as families with dependent children and/or a pregnant woman who, in breach of government guidelines, have been in B&Bs for longer than six weeks. The stats contain spikes in predictable boroughs: Brent, Barking and Dagenham, Westminster, Tower Hamlets.

For the details of what this actually involves, read Living In Limbo, a landmark report by Shelter published eight years ago, which describes realities little changed since then. Rooms are cramped and often damp. Bathrooms are frequently unsanitary. People regularly pushed from one temporary redoubt to another are often left depressed and unstable. It is standard practice for families to be shut out of their accommodation during working hours, meaning that children must somehow kill time elsewhere. There is usually no provision of an evening meal: if you’re lucky, you make do with takeaways.

Now comes very bad news indeed. To “complement” universal credit, as of next April, all benefits payable to all families will be capped at £500 a week, and it looks like this limit will apply to housing benefit paid for temporary accommodation. But what to do when its price so often exceeds that figure? In Newham, for example, the council puts the cost of temporary accommodation at a minimum of £525 a week.

When I phoned the DWP, a spokesman said he was “90% certain” that temporary accommodation will indeed fall under the cap – and a subsequent email went most of the way to confirming that it would, claiming that “the benefit cap is necessary to restore fairness to the benefits system”, and that “councils will have access to £120m to help people who may need extra support, including those in temporary accommodation”.

One senior staffer at a housing charity says this “support” amounts to a tiny fraction of the money the government will suck out of the housing benefit system. The DWP seems happy to take this on the chin: “It’s not about taking one apple away and putting another in its place,” a spokesman said. But if temporary accommodation is put beyond people’s reach, the number of families in B&B will skyrocket. And all this before universal credit arrives, spreading not just uncertainty and the prospect of hacked-back household incomes, but the likelihood of people falling out of the benefits system altogether.

Please: no more talk from this government about aspiration and opportunity, the imperative to help those at the very bottom, or Britain somehow becoming the most family-friendly society in Europe. When you hear anything like that (and, with conference season looming, there is going to be a lot of it), picture a disorientated child, trying to do her homework amid the clattering noise of a McDonald’s, and dreading the evening’s return to what passes for home – a cramped and smelly room, with anxious shouts ricocheting around the corridors – until morning once again arrives, and with it the daily lockout.

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WARNING: cannabis causes tedious narcissism | John Harris

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

Australian smokers are Instagramming inane weed-related photos. It’s one of the best reasons to decriminalise the drug

Never let it be said that cannabis smokers can barely find enough energy to make their once-daily trip to the garage for crisps and chocolate milk: thanks to the weedheads of Australia, we now know that their habit is synonymous with artistry and digital activism on a truly industrial scale.

On Instagram, you will find thousands of pictures documenting cannabis use in all its fascinating glory. Such subtle hashtags as “cannabis”, “marijuana” and “weed” flag up photos of buds, bongs, towering home-grown plants, joints the size of baseball bats (obligatory, obviously), and scores of dead-eyed weed enthusiasts in the act of partaking.

As a result, two things have happened. First, a whole knuckle-headed subculture has grown around the snaps, perfectly crystallised by a scintillating blog entry from back in March titled The 20 Hottest #Girlswhosmokeweed on Instagram I’ve found (so far) and tweeted over 7,000 times. Second, there have been threats from the authorities in Victoria to somehow pursue anyone who has posted such images – which, predictably enough, have only accelerated the craze further.

At which point, it is worth pausing for thought, and marvelling at the stupidity of it all. Of course, the state getting in such a lather about cannabis use only underlines the lunacy of its prohibition – as with this week’s Guardian story about weed-trade-related violence and shootings, complete with a senior cop in Merseyside advocating harsher sentencing for those who grow and sell it. Both stories flag up much the same organised idiocy: the Melbourne-based Herald Sun quotes police warning that “anyone who posts images of this nature may find themselves subject to a criminal investigation”; assistant chief constable Andy Ward thunders that “the amount of money being made by criminals should be reflected in the sentencing”. Shades, as always, of Chicago circa 1925, a colossal waste of human effort – and, all too often, utterly needless gangsterism.

That much surely ought to be accepted by anyone even halfway rational. But at the same time, the Australian Instagram hoo-hah also points up marijuana’s real dangers – which, for most of its users, are less a matter of psychosis and mental breakdown, than induction into a culture of narcissistic tedium. Once you’re in, it is very hard to escape: if you’re not careful, as well as your daily motivation crashing to the point that even the aforementioned crisps and chocolate milk become a stretch, you will find yourself boxed in by a great wall of novelty cigarette papers, “amusing” stash tins and equally entertaining water-pipes. Worse, weed may well end up being all you talk about, in much the same way that real ale enthusiasts go on endlessly about “hoppy brews” and “session ales”, talking to no one but themselves.

In that sense, the Instagram galleries amount to a great big cautionary tale. Look at her, with her leaf-shaped tattoo! Look at him, with his presumably brain-shredding bong! Check this person out, with their ready-rolled green joints, inscribed “glamour”, “love”, “pain” and “lust”! And then think about the spectacle of a drug culture that does not put its chosen substance at the centre of a whole creative firmament (a la ecstasy, acid, and at a push, booze), but that worships intoxication for its own sake. Boring!

Therein, I think, lies one of the best arguments for decriminalisation – not just of the use of cannabis, but the whole industry that feeds it. Just imagine: we might thereby separate dope-smoking from the kudos that comes with illegality, convince a few Instagram-posting types that smoking weed is not interesting or sexy in any way, and thereby stop people making such a huge fuss about a substance that is, in any case, often a byword for humanity at its most myopic and useless (hash in particular has always struck me as leaden means of glueing yourself to the furniture, thinking crap music great, and finding amusement in the most banal rubbish). We can but hope: on this evidence, though, the revolution is not about to start in Australia.

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‘The Greens are turning into a force on the radical left’ – video

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

John Harris visits the Green party conference for the first time to find a young generation taking over, a battle to attract working-class and BME members, and an ambitious new leader aiming to emulate the Greek Syriza party

John Harris
John Domokos

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A Light that Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths by Tony Fletcher – review

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

John Harris finds out why a magical band broke up

“From the beginning,” writes Tony Fletcher, “the Smiths sensed greatness, and to realise that greatness meant a refusal to accept confinement to the margins.”

The point is undeniably true, in so many ways. When the Mancunian guitar player Johnny Marr called at the home of Steven Morrissey in May 1982 and began writing songs with him, their sights were fixed on reference points altogether loftier than those of the alternative-rock milieu they quickly transcended. Marr’s view of the world was shaped by the Rolling Stones, Phil Spector, and the classic songwriting duo Lieber & Stoller. Morrissey added such literary touchstones as Oscar Wilde, and the playwright and screenwriter Shelagh Delaney – as well as an array of opinions and lifestyle choices that embodied a radical break with the go-for-it, consumerist attitudes of the 1980s: vegetarianism, a biting hatred of the Thatcher government and a sense that the singer – who spent the band’s career and beyond claiming to be celibate – was somehow proud to be always in the grip of some malady or other.

They soon realised how good they were: indeed, at 25 years’ distance, the richness of their songs and their breathtaking consistency suggests a place just down from the Beatles. But their career prospects were always held in check by a problem that grew worse as their success increased: Morrissey’s refusal to employ a manager or submit to the standard promotional grind, both of which were at odds with his almost pathological griping about chart positions, radio play and the esteem in which they were or were not held by their record company, Rough Trade.

As he seemed to see it, if the Smiths were commercial underachievers, it was always someone else’s fault – but if you refuse to make videos, blow out TV appearances at a moment’s notice and cancel European tours in the airport departure lounge, then “the margins” are something you will never quite escape. Moreover, without a big figure to oversee the business side of their lives, any comparable group would have probably buckled, something beautifully captured in one Marr quote: “I’ve never met anyone who thinks that the 23-year-old guitar player of a really big band should be the manager.”

All this defines the essential plotline of A Light Never Goes Out, the story of the Smiths told over nearly 700 pages by a former biographer of REM and of the Who drummer Keith Moon, on the basis of interviews with just about every surviving participant in the Smiths’ story – apart from drummer Mike Joyce and, somewhat inevitably, Morrissey himself. The singer’s autobiography is published later this year, and it will be interesting to see how his telling of these tales differs from what Fletcher has amassed: as the story winds on, a chain of no-shows, fits of pique and self-sabotage that reaches its denouement with an episode from April 1987, just prior to the band’s formal break-up.

A video was due to be filmed in London’s Battersea, which would boost the Smiths’ fast-rising profile in the US. Three of the Smiths turned up, but Morrissey hid away in his flat in Knightsbridge. Fletcher is the first writer to have got the full story, thanks to the American video director Tamra Davis, who was part of the three-person deputation sent to try and convince him to change his mind. She gives Fletcher a simple anecdote that captures the moment at which the band began to break up: “I remember very distinctly that I had no idea if Morrissey was standing behind that door laughing at the three of us pleading with him, or crying … Johnny was like, ‘That’s it. The band is over’ … And he walks away.” The crucial moment came later, at a meal Marr organised for the Smiths in a Notting Hill fish and chip restaurant. As the Smiths’ bassist Andy Rourke later acknowledged, there was something grimly fitting in the fact that a group so synonymous with northern grit effectively “broke up in a chippy”.

Such material highlights the extent to which Fletcher has done his research, though it also underlines a tension familiar to anyone who owns more than a handful of rock books. Very few musicians have stories the content of which matches the drama and excitement of the best pop music, and in the Smiths’ case, behind truly amazing songs lay lives often defined by ordinary things. Their happiness on tour depended on a dependable supply of egg and chips. By way of a nod to rock excess, Rourke had a heroin problem, but when he was temporarily sacked from the group, he claimed that Morrissey did the deed via a note left on the windscreen of his car, parked in a side-street in Altrincham.

The main onus on anyone writing about the Smiths, then, is the necessity of evoking the magical singularity of their music, but Fletcher’s book doesn’t manage the trick. He’s too fond of the rock-hack vernacular, so that records are rated by “fans and critics alike”, and music leans towards “the jazz arena” rather than jazz itself. A group so steeped in literature has long deserved the attention of someone with at least the ambition to be a prose stylist; in the same sense, there is something maddening about music so lithe and lyrical being described in prose that often falls flat. And on at least two occasions, Fletcher belly flops: there’s a very clunky evocation of the moors murders, and one borderline unforgivable occasion when he describes the Smiths’ native Manchester as the “Lancashire capital”.

If Fletcher’s writing can be disappointingly tepid, the same applies to the book that has until now been the only serious Smiths biography on the market – Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance by the prolific music biographer Johnny Rogan (Omnibus, £14.95), first published in 1992. It has now been updated – chiefly with revelations gleaned from the mid-1990s court case focused on one of the most remarkable aspects of the Smiths’ affairs: that while Morrissey and Marr received 40% each of the proceeds from performing and recording, Rourke and Joyce were paid a mere 10% apiece (Rourke settled out of court for £83,000; Joyce went all the way, and was awarded around £1m).

Like Fletcher’s book only more so, Rogan’s is a (qualified) victory of research rather than literary panache, built on a great mountain of facts and testimony, and slowed by the rock-book convention of writing about every Smiths album by using a pedestrian track-by-track breakdown. That said, there is a lot to feast on, particularly Rogan’s fond recounting of Morrissey and Marr’s family roots in Ireland and their upbringing in the Mancunian-Irish community, a background they shared with Rourke and Joyce. If their music always fizzed with a vivid sense of Englishness, it was perhaps because they at least partly saw their home country through the eyes of their immigrant parents.

The best Smiths book remains the comparatively brief The Smiths: Songs that Saved Your Life, by the music writer Simon Goddard, the definitive version of which was published in 2004. Inspired by Ian Macdonald’s Beatles book Revolution in the Head, it was built around a simple idea: taking all of the Smiths’ songs and telling their story. In his Mozipedia: The Encyclopedia of Morrissey and The Smiths (Ebury Press, £14.99), now published in paperback, Goddard widens his previous book’s mixture of detail and passionate celebration to Morrissey’s entire aesthetic universe, arranged in alphabetical order. There are entries for Alan Bennett, the New York Dolls, the Kray twins – and Dirk Bogarde, on whom Morrissey apparently dwelled in 1994, imagining being able to “live in a mansion flat in Chelsea and see nobody, which would be a perfect life”.

Reading that sentence, I imagine an irate knock at the door, another engagement cancelled, and I think of those uncharacteristically inelegant lines from “What Difference Does It Make?”, a top 20 hit in 1984: “Oh, I’m too tired / I’m so sick and tired / And I’m feeling very sick and ill today.”

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